Most television and film, both fictional and factual, aims to connect with the viewer through identification with characters and situations. The trick is to make these as universal as possible in order to make the widest possible impact. Sometimes, though, the work will speak directly to an individual through a shared experience or characteristic and, though we will all respond to tales of hardship, struggle or repression, those who have personal experience of the situations portrayed, or strong commitment to the causes at issue, will have a more profound reaction. In terms of making critical judgements this can work both ways – personal interest can tempt us to overestimate the significance of the piece, while personal experience can make us more critical of how well the programme makers have conveyed the issue – did they “get it right”?
How far is it possible to be objective in these circumstances? Having spent a career assessing the significance of television programmes in different contexts, I have learned to try to be and have always qualified my opinions according to personal interests and connections to subject matter where necessary. However, in considering the series There She Goes, which concluded its brief (5 part) run on BBC4 last night, I cannot do other than approach it as somebody with precisely the same experiences as the characters portrayed – being myself a parent and carer of a daughter with undiagnosed learning disabilities.
Until comparatively recently, people with learning disabilities have rarely been portrayed in film or TV – at least not in a way which acknowledged their condition. Comedy has regularly used the adult “simpleton” as a staple character and a source of (often cheap) laughs. Some performers created comic personas which can only be understood as adults with (usually mild) learning disabilities – Jerry Lewis and Norman Wisdom spring to mind. The character of Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (BBC, 1973-78) falls into this tradition and even the person I regard as the greatest comic genius of the 20thcentury, Stan Laurel, is not entirely immune from inclusion in this list. The only comedy character I can recall whose learning disability was acknowledged was Dennis Dunstable in LWT’s Please, Sir (1968-72). However, I should also mention in this context Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s wonderful Mrs Merton and Malcolm (BBC, 1999) in which Malcolm’s learning disability was not acknowledged, even though that is the only credible explanation for the character. Described by Time Out (!) as “possibly the most disturbing show on television”, it only ran for one much misunderstood series.
By and large, these comic characters were very sympathetic, mainly because their lack of responsibility and awareness rendered them unthreatening, unlike other disabled characters who were regularly portrayed as bitter and sinister. In drama, the standout piece is Walter, Stephen Frears’ film starring Ian McKellen, which was the centrepiece of Channel 4’s opening night schedule in 1982 and set a standard (together with its sequel, Walter and June, the following year) for the portrayal of an adult with learning disabilities which remained unequalled for a long time because nobody else really tried – it had been done.
Portrayals of the disabled on film and TV have basically mirrored (and occasionally led) society’s attitudes – from the dark days when they were kept out of sight and discussed in hushed tones to today’s more inclusive approach. Physical disabilities led the way and were easier to encompass, mainly because the disabled themselves could participate actively as actors or contributors. Those with learning disabilities have been more difficult to engage with, especially when they are undiagnosed – Down’s Syndrome or autism have featured more prominently in recent years and even sometimes employed performers with those conditions.
For me, a major breakthrough was Ricky Gervais’ Derek (Channel 4, 2012-14), because it helped me rethink my attitude to our daughter’s disability. The character of Derek has similar limitations to our Hanna and a similar outlook on life and it gave me a sight of how she may be when she is older, as long as she continues to progress at her own irregular pace (at 19, her TV channel of choice is still Cbeebies). Gervais was criticised for not specifying Derek’s disorder, but I think this was the right choice – if he had done so, then the special interest groups would have begun to dissect his approach and the power of the piece would have been lost. At the end of the first series, the characters in the care home where Derek lives and works are “interviewed” about their lives and generally conclude that Derek is the one who has things figured out, because he is always so cheerful. That helped me to change my own feelings about Hanna’s condition from one of regret that she will never have a “normal” life to one of acceptance and even gladness that her constantly happy attitude will persist. When you have no concept of what your life could have been, you will have little experience of disappointment, so it should not be a cause for regret. It is possible that this attitude of mine is something of a cop-out for my own peace of mind, but it works for me: besides which, ensuring that she continues to have the appropriate secure environment is enough to keep me occupied. As for Derek, it is also a good example of the sort of series I referred to at the start of this blog – one for which my enthusiasm is engendered by personal connection but is out of step with the general critical consensus.
So far, most of the examples I have quoted have been about the learning disabled themselves and maybe I have taken them personally because I am Hanna’s proxy (which, in legal terms, is literally true). But There She Goes is about my life. There have been a number of documentaries about the parents of people with learning disabilities, many focussing on the dilemma of how to ensure that your son or daughter is provided for after your own deaths – Ira Wohl’s 1979 Best Boy was one of the first and Mimi and Dora (PBS, 2015) was a heartbreaking study of an ageing mother’s failure to establish a satisfactory independent life for her disabled daughter – a problem she remarkably solved by outliving her. One of my favourite recent documentaries is How to Dance in Ohio (HBO, 2015) which was about the organisation of a formal prom for a group of autistic youngsters – it was emotional and inspirational, and I certainly recognised my own life in it from accompanying Hanna to the school and college proms and discos which she loves.
Before There She Goes, the only fictional piece directly focussing on the parents of a disabled child which I can remember is Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, a stage play which had both film and television adaptations. It has a similar dark humour to There She Goes and was also based on the writer’s own experiences, but it dates from an era when disability was more a private affair and the girl’s disability is severe cerebral palsy. There She Goes is pretty much contemporary to our own experiences and also features a child with undiagnosed disabilities similar to Hanna’s, though a little more severe and much more disruptive.
There She Goes is written by Shaun Pye and splits its narrative between 2015, when the learning-disabled Rosie (Miley Locke) is 9, and 2006, when her parents Simon (David Tennant) and Emily (Jessica Hynes) are first discovering her problem. Simon’s reaction in these flashback scenes is to avoid his responsibilities by going straight to the pub after work, while Emily’s desperation makes her even wonder at one point if she will ever be able to love her child. These scenes were very close to home for us: not that I ever sought refuge in a pub or drink or that my wife ever doubted her love for Hanna, but I was out at work while she had to cope with her worries about Hanna in isolation, so it was very hard for her to watch this and Pye (a writer on Have I Got News For You – my favourite comedy panel show) wisely sought his own wife’s input for the character of Emily, which meant it was spot-on. One flashback scene struck me particularly, because it contained a piece of dialogue which came pretty much verbatim out of my own mouth back in about 2003: after a visit to our excellent consultant neurologist, who was organising all sorts of tests for Hanna, none of which produced a conclusive diagnosis, I wondered aloud whether he was partly motivated by the possibility of getting a syndrome named after himself, as does Simon.
There is just so much in every episode of There She Goes which strikes home and, no doubt, does also for all parents of children with learning disabilities – I’m sure we all have the dreams where our children are talking ”normally” to us. If I can take anything helpful from it, as I did with Derek, it is better appreciation of my wife’s feelings when she understood from tiny clues that there was a problem way before I did (and she did not, as Emily does, have an older child for comparison). Jessica Hynes is brilliant in these scenes. Shaun Pye’s sense of humour seems much same as mine, though probably not as caustic as Simon’s, so I found it funnier than my wife did – it is best described as comedy-drama, though, and, as with all the best recent work in this field, it is in half-hour episodes.
The split time-frame also serves to show that Simon and Emily both overcame the problems we see them facing in 2006 to become a functioning and loving family unit in spite of (and probably also because of) Rosie’s disabilities. The interactions between them and their friends, colleagues and family members is also brilliantly handled – living with the issue 24 hours a day, there are things only they understand, and it struck me that, just as certain minorities have re-claimed and “own” perjorative terms which are now taboo for everybody else (black people with the n-word, gay people with the term “queer” etc), so only we parents of the disabled can use terms like “retard” or “mentally handicapped” with impunity (Simon actually seeks advice on what is socially acceptable from a friend at one point). The whole thing is beautifully crafted and performed and Miley Locke is outstanding as Rosie. It would be too much to expect that a genuine learning-disabled child could have played the part, though I understand it was only the rigours of a shooting schedule which prevented the programme-makers from trying.
I fully understand that my judgement on There She Goes is affected by how close to home its subject matter is for me, but I’m not actually out-of-step with the general critical response this time, so I am adding it to my shortlist for the best of 2018. I hope you understand.